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Postcards, Shoe Leather Factor In Kansas Elections

A line-up of candidates at a meet-and-greet in Ulysses, Kansas. From left to right: District 39 Sen. Larry Powell, Congressional candidate Roger Marshall, state Rep. John Doll, and Democratic challenger Zach Worf.
Amy Jeffries

In far Western Kansas, Senate District 39 spans 10 counties -- it’s vast and it’s flat.

For once, there is a Democratic candidate out here. Zach Worf, a political novice, is the first Democrat to try for the senate seat in a long time.

The real race is still the Republican primary. This time it’s a contest between incumbent Sen. Larry Powell and Garden City Rep. John Doll.

Doll says he knows what the prime attack against him will be: that he used to be a Democrat.

“I ran for the U.S. Congress (against Jerry Moran) as a Democrat, it’s not something I’m going to be able to hide,” Doll says.

Doll anticipated the postcards. Powell’s campaign has already sent out some showing the challenger’s face next to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The regulars at the Daylight Donuts in Ulysses, which is within the 39th District, have heard of Doll and Powell. But, typical of voters when it comes to state lawmakers, they don’t know much about them.

Betty Radloff, retired from work as a school cook and secretary and running a tax office with her husband, says she actually tries to ignore politicians. Nonetheless, she says she votes in every election.

So how does she decide who to vote for? That’s where postcards come into play.

“You know, they call you, you get all the things in the mail,” Radloff explains. 

Stephanie Sharp is a campaign consultant, working mostly for moderate Republicans in Johnson County. She does what she calls “campaign product coordination” -- websites, yard signs, stickers, flyers, and yes, postcards.

Sharp has been in a six-week sprint since the June 1 candidate filing deadline to land the right postcards in the right mailboxes before election offices start sending out advance ballots July 13.

Most of her client’s mailings are positive -- smiling pictures of candidates with bullet points about passion issues or comparisons to opponents.

“Most candidates won’t put out really negative stuff under their own ‘paid-for-by’ attribution,” Sharp says.

It's political action committees that will send out the “nasty-grams”.  


Paid for by the Kansas Chamber, this postcard was among several that doomed Steve Morris' bid for reelection in 2012.
Credit Singularis
Paid for by the Kansas Chamber, this postcard was among several that doomed Steve Morris' bid for reelection in 2012.

Steve Morris had been the senator for District 39 for 20 years until 2012 when he was blasted with “nasty-grams”. At the time, Morris was Kansas Senate President and president of the National Council of State Legislatures. Postcards paid for by political action committees suggested Morris was getting high on the taxpayers’ dime. He says it wasn’t true.

“One of the mailings that came out, they showed me in a tuxedo smoking a cigar -- which, I don’t smoke -- burning a hundred dollar bill,” Morris remembers.

Morris was blindsided. He’d raised nearly $90,000 in the seven months before the primary from a list of individual donors 18-pages long. Larry Powell, then the challenger, had brought in less than $30,000, and that’s counting the $20,000 he’d loaned to his own campaign.

Powell didn’t need to do more fundraising. The Kansas Chamber and affiliated groups like Americans for Prosperity Kansas and Kansas Club for Growth were spending tens of thousands more on TV and radio ads, phone banking, and mailings.

“We were sort of steamrolled,” Morris says.  

The Kansas Chamber has endorsed 73 legislative candidates in this year’s primaries and will again be sending out postcards supporting some, including Powell. Mailers from Kansas Club for Growth and Kansas Realtors PAC have already landed in the 39th District.  

No one knows just how much is being spent on mailers right now. Those reports aren’t due until just days before the elections.

Stephanie Sharp says there’s just one antidote to whatever’s coming. “The best thing to beat mail is candidates on doorsteps.”

That’s Doll’s strategy. He’s hired a four-person team to knock on the door of every Republican household in the  39th District.

John Doll (left) and Larry Powell touring Pioneer Electric before a candidate meet-and-greet at the coop in Ulysses, Kansas.
Credit Amy Jeffries / KCUR
John Doll (left) and Larry Powell touring Pioneer Electric before a candidate meet-and-greet at the coop in Ulysses, Kansas.

One Friday in June, both Doll and Powell were getting some facetime. Pioneer Electric, a coop in Ulysses, hosted the meet-and-greet.

Powell dedicated his stump speech to his big win -- pushing back against protections for the lesser prairie chicken that he says impede development in Western Kansas.

“This endangered species deal costs consumers, electric coop people, and counties, and everybody,” Powell told the audience of employees and coop members at Pioneer.

Doll, meanwhile, attempted to get ahead of the postcards.

“I was just a Democrat because Dad was a Democrat,” Doll explained.

Even with that inoculation, the postcards will keep coming. Most of them get dumped in last weeks and even days before the election.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that it is the “Kansas Club for Growth” that has paid for postcards in Kansas. 

Amy Jeffries is the Kansas Elections Editor at KCUR, which is a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyoverhere.

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